How Calgary businesses are handling COVID vaccine requirements

Business owners are grateful for the new city bylaw taking the decision to implement vaccine requirements out of their hands — but the bylaw doesn't include everyone

By Krista Sylvester | September 27, 2021 |4:18 am

Left: Madame Premier owner Sarah Elder-Chamanara. Middle: Gravity Espresso and Wine Bar owner Andy Fennell. Right: Dickens Pub owner Chris Hewitt.

Photo: Left: Sheena Zilinski. Middle: Submitted. Right: Submitted.

It’s a tale of two different types of approaches to the city’s new vaccine requirement bylaw: one of compliance and one of refusal. 

Local businesses, including Dickens Pub and Madame Premier, have taken matters into their own hands before being mandated to, while businesses such as Without Papers Pizza have vocally stated that they will not comply with the new bylaw passed last week. 

Calgary’s new bylaw, which brings in mandatory vaccine passports for several specific types of establishments including bars, restaurants and coffee shops. 

Inglewood’s Without Papers Pizza made a post after the city bylaw came into effect last Thursday: “We accept all, may they be vaccinated or unvaccinated, as being equal in their humanity and afforded the same dignity and equity as such.” 

They’ve been both praised and ridiculed for their approach. 

A small but vocal minority causing major stress 

It’s frustrating, says Dickens Pub owner Chris Hewitt, who was one of the first businesses to ask for proof of vaccination for entry late August — before the provincial government enacted the Restrictions Exemption Program (REF.) The bar was a target of endless online abuse, threats, calls and emails for its stance. 

“When they brought in the provincial one, it was just done completely backwards. It was a classic backwards UCP cowardly shift of blame, which made it super hard for all the local, small businesses,” Hewitt says, applauding the city for taking the decision out of business owners’ hands and making it an even playing field for those it applies to. 

“Everyone was put into a position where they had to individually declare their intent, which in turn opened up each of them individually to the ire of the anti-vaxxer community out there, which is really unfortunate because things are hard enough for all of us right now as it is without having to deal with a constant string of abuses.” 

Hewitt thinks something needs to be done about the constant attacks from this “small but vocal” group, which can include emails, calls, messages, and one-star reviews for the businesses who have declared their intent to ask for vaccination. 

“It’s unbelievable how much time most people have to dedicate to making your life hell right now. It’s terrible and dangerous, just unbelievable. Something needs to be done about it. I don’t know what could be done, but it’s just appalling right now.” 

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An uneven playing field 

Madame Premier owner Sarah Elder-Chamanara chose to implement the vaccine requirements after the provincial program excluded retail. The city’s approach still doesn’t include retail. 

“It now created an uneven playing field in the retail industry between those who opted to opt-in voluntarily versus those who are continuing to opt-out just because it’s easy,” she says, adding  she and her business have been under attack for her decision. 

She’s received dozens of negative reviews and messages from those who don’t agree with her decision. 

“I think it does the most harm to small businesses like mine that are owned, run and staffed by predominantly women.” 

Gravity Espresso and Wine Bar owner Andy Fennell says with the provincial program, businesses were forced to make a tough decision to either implement it or possibly face bankruptcy, so he adopted the program. He applauds the city’s bylaw move. 

“People have been very supportive and also gracious. Thanking us for actually doing the program and some people have been awkward, but it’s very few and far between,” he says.

Fennell has even taken to bringing coffee orders outside for those who are more comfortable not coming in or who have forgotten their proof of vaccination.

There are consequences 

Failure to comply with the new city bylaw could result in a $500 fine to those who can’t or don’t present an immunization record or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours (or a vaccine medical exemption letter) when entering applicable businesses. 

Businesses that let in people without the required papers could also be fined $500, but a statement provided to Calgary Citizen by the City of Calgary stated that the city will try to work with businesses on education. 

“We will be working with businesses to educate them so they fully understand the expectations under the bylaw. The vast majority of businesses we have heard from are embracing these measures so that they aren’t subject to capacity or other restrictions and recognize that consumer confidence is bolstered with a consistent approach and reduced risk.”

The city also said they are “aware of a small number of businesses who have stated their intent not to comply”. 

“We are monitoring compliance of these establishments and our bylaw is clear on the actions we can take. We expect all businesses in-scope to check for either proof of vaccination, a valid medical exemption or a recent negative COVID test.”

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Krista Sylvester

Reporter at Calgary Citizen

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